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Irony, Nostalgia, and the Postmodern
At the risk of succumbing to New Historicist fashion, I should nonetheless like to begin with a personal anecdote. But I shall ask you, the reader, to take an active role: I should like you to pretend you are me and imagine your response to the following situation. The time is a few years ago; you are in London, England. You have just that hour submitted to your publisher the final version of the manuscript of a book on the theory and politics of irony.1 In a celebratory mood, you walk into a bookstore. One of the first things that catches your eye--for obvious and deeply personal reasons--is the cover of an English magazine entitled The Modern Review. On it is pictured the equivalent of a "no smoking" sign, but this time the barred red circle of forbiddenness surrounds a pair of inverted commas, reinforcing the headline: "The End of Irony? The Tragedy of the Post-Ironic Condition." You might be somewhat nonplussed: you know you delivered the manuscript a bit later than you had promised--but you had not really counted on the book being utterly out of date before it was even published.
Perhaps you might react as I did: you might quickly (and not a little nervously) turn to the article inside on the commodification of irony by the very generation (the "twentysomething" generation) that was said to be using irony as its only defence against commodification.2 Depending on your temperament, you might think this entire incident was uncannily odd or disturbingly interesting or downright irritating. But stretch your imagination a little more and consider how you might then feel if, on the same pages as this article about the end of irony, you found a companion article about the seven types of (not ambiguity, but) nostalgia that were said to greet the "end of irony."
Remember, you are me in this exercise of the imagination: and you have therefore spent not a little time and energy over the last decade arguing that (at least what you would like to call) the "postmodern" has little to do with nostalgia and much to do with irony.3 The forces ranged against such a reading of postmodernism were formidable in the extreme,4 but you have always been a little stubborn. Of course, you have never denied that a lot of contemporary culture was indeed nostalgic: you cannot close your eyes (and ears) to everything going on around you. But there was also lots of irony--maybe too much irony--and that is what you have been trying to think through for the last few years. But here was irony's end and nostalgia's proliferating types sharing not only the same page, but the same popular culture examples. What's worse, to believe the authors of these articles, the end of irony seemed actually to necessitate this proliferation of nostalgia. Now (use your imagination) would you feel some kind of challenge in all this? Would you feel that welcome (or unwelcome) sense of unfinished business? Obviously, I did. I thought this issue of the magazine was Destiny, Fate, ... and all those other capitalized monstrosities by which we excuse our obsessions in life. And this essay represents my attempt to deal with this unfinished business, to try to understand why I had earlier chosen to all but ignore the nostalgic dimension of the postmodern in favour of the ironic. It cannot simply be put down to the fact that I am utterly un-nostalgic, though that is a personality fault to which I must admit. I am also relatively un-ironic (and I certainly miss many ironies)--as countless colleagues and students over the years have learned, much to their consternation and, no doubt, amusement. I simply believed irony to be more complicated, more interesting, more "edgy" than nostalgia, and in so believing, I all but ignored the very real and very uneasy tension between postmodern irony and nostalgia today.
The specific cultural forms of the postmodern are not my only focus here, because I also want to consider more broadly certain forms of contemporary culture, not all of which can be considered complicitously critical and deconstructing--that is, not all of them are postmodern. But it was postmodernism that brought the conjunction of irony and nostalgia quite literally into the public eye through the forms of its architecture. The early debates focussed precisely on that conjunction in response to postmodern architecture's double-coding, its deliberate (if ironized) return to the history of the humanly constructed environment.5 This return was in reaction to modern architecture's ostentatious rejection of the past, including the past of the city's historical fabric. The terms of the debate were basically as follows: was this postmodern recalling of the past an example of a conservative--and therefore nostalgic--escape to an idealized, simpler era of "real" community values?6 Or did it express, but through its ironic distance, a "genuine and legitimate dissatisfaction with modernity and the unquestioned belief in ... perpetual modernization"?7 The question soon became: how is it that the same cultural entity could come to be interpreted (apparently) so widely differently as to be seen as either ironic or nostalgic? Or as both ironic and nostalgic?8 The American television series "All in the Family" was one example of the latter conflation. Despite its allegedly progressive intent--what its creators intended as ironic de-bunking--it seems that Archie Bunker was popular in large segments of various populations because of the show's conservative, indeed openly nostalgic, appeal to attitudes perhaps consciously denied but deeply felt.9
In general cultural commentary in the mass media--as in the academy--irony and nostalgia are both seen as key components of contemporary culture today.10 In the 1980s, it was irony that captured our attention most; in the 1990s, it appears to be nostalgia that is holding sway. David Lowenthal has even asserted that, while "[f]ormerly confined in time and place, nostalgia today engulfs the whole past."11 Perhaps nostalgia is given surplus meaning and value at certain moments--millennial moments, like our own. Nostalgia, the media tell us, has become an obsession of both mass culture and high art. And they may be right, though some people feel the obsession is really the media's obsession.12 Yet, how else do you account for the return of the fountain pen--as an object of consumer luxury--in the age of the computer, when we have all but forgotten how to write?
The explanations offered for this kind of commercialized luxuriating in the culture of the past have ranged from economic cynicism to moral superiority. They usually point to a dissatisfaction with the culture of the present--something that is then either applauded or condemned. Leading the applause, an apocalyptic George Steiner claims that the decline in formal value systems in the West has left us with a "deep, unsettling nostalgia for the absolute."13 And, I suspect more than one reader longs for a time (in the idealized past) when knowledge--and its purveyors--had some purchase and influence on what constituted value in society. But even on the less contentious level of retro fashions or various other commercial nostalgias, it does appear that the "derogatory word 'dated' seems to have vanished from our language."14 It has been taken over by "nostalgic," a word that has been used to signal both praise and blame. But, however self-evident (on a common sense level) it may seem that an often sentimentalized nostalgia is the very opposite of edgy irony, the postmodern debates' conflation (or confusion) of the two should give us pause.
Before beginning to tackle this conflation, I need to lay out briefly the definitions of my principal concepts and the terms of my argument. I have already defined my particular usage of the term "postmodern"--which is not synonymous with the contemporary, but which does have some mix of the complicitous and the critical at its ambivalent core. And I am going to trust that readers will all have some sort of sense of what "irony" means--either in its rhetorical or New Critical meanings or in its more extended senses of situational irony or, with an historical dimension, of "romantic" irony. What exactly is "nostalgia," though? Or perhaps the first question really should be: what WAS nostalgia? With its Greek roots--nostos, meaning "to return home" and algos, meaning "pain"--this word sounds so familiar to us that we may forget that it is a relatively new word, as words go. It was coined in 1688 by a 19-year old Swiss student in his medical dissertation as a sophisticated (or perhaps pedantic) way to talk about a literally lethal kind of severe homesickness (of Swiss mercenaries far from their mountainous home).15 This medical-pathological definition of nostalgia allowed for a remedy: the return home, or sometimes merely the promise of it. The experiencing and the attributing of a nostalgic response appeared well before this, of course. Think of the psalmist's remembering of Zion while weeping by the waters of Babylon. But the term itself seems to be culturally and historically specific.16
This physical and emotional "upheaval ... related to the workings of memory"--an upheaval that could and did kill, according to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century physicians--was seen as a "disorder of the imagination" from the start.17 But by the nineteenth century, a considerable semantic slippage had occurred, and the word began to lose its purely medical meaning,18 in part because the rise of pathologic anatomy and bacteriology had simply made it less medically credible. Nostalgia then became generalized,19 and by the twentieth century, it had begun to attract the interest of psychiatrists.20 But curious things happened in that generalizing process: nostalgia became less a physical than a psychological condition; in other words, it became psychically internalized. It also went from being a curable medical illness to an incurable (indeed unassuageable) condition of the spirit or psyche.21 What made that transition possible was a shift in site from the spatial to the temporal. Nostalgia was no longer simply a yearning to return home. As early as 1798, Immanuel Kant had noted that people who did return home were usually disappointed because, in fact, they did not want to return to a place, but to a time, a time of youth.22 Time, unlike space, cannot be returned to--ever; time is irreversible. And nostalgia becomes the reaction to that sad fact.23 As one critic has succinctly put this change: "Odysseus longs for home; Proust is in search of lost time."24
Nostalgia, in fact, may depend precisely on the irrecoverable nature of the past for its emotional impact and appeal. It is the very pastness of the past, its inaccessibility, that likely accounts for a large part of nostalgia's power--for both conservatives and radicals alike. This is rarely the past as actually experienced, of course; it is the past as imagined, as idealized through memory and desire. In this sense, however, nostalgia is less about the past than about the present. It operates through what Mikhail Bakhtin called an "historical inversion": the ideal that is not being lived now is projected into the past.25 It is "memorialized" as past, crystallized into precious moments selected by memory, but also by forgetting, and by desire's distortions and reorganizations.26 Simultaneously distancing and proximating, nostalgia exiles us from the present as it brings the imagined past near. The simple, pure, ordered, easy, beautiful, or harmonious past is constructed (and then experienced emotionally) in conjunction with the present--which, in turn, is constructed as complicated, contaminated, anarchic, difficult, ugly, and confrontational. Nostalgic distancing sanitizes as it selects, making the past feel complete, stable, coherent, safe from "the unexpected and the untoward, from accident or betrayal"27--in other words, making it so very unlike the present. The aesthetics of nostalgia might, therefore, be less a matter of simple memory than of complex projection; the invocation of a partial, idealized history merges with a dissatisfaction with the present. And it can do so with great force. Think of how visceral, how physically "present" nostalgia's promptings are: it is not just Proust for whom tastes, smells, sounds, and sights conjure up an idealized past. If you are not like me (that is, if you are capable of nostalgia), you can think of your own experience--or, if need be, do as I have to do and think of the power of the taste of Proust's madeleine or the scent of violets in Tennyson's " A dream of fair women" or of a geranium leaf in David Copperfield.28
There are, of course, many ways to look backward. You can look and reject. Or you can look and linger longingly. In its looking backward in this yearning way, nostalgia may be more of an attempt to defy the end, to evade teleology. As we approach the millennium, nostalgia may be particularly appealing as a possible escape from what Lee Quinby calls "technological apocalypse."29 If the future is cyberspace, then what better way to soothe techno-peasant anxieties than to yearn for a Mont Blanc fountain pen? But there is a rather obvious contradiction here: nostalgia requires the availability of evidence of the past,30 and it is precisely the electronic and mechanical reproduction of images of the past that plays such an important role in the structuring of the nostalgic imagination today, furnishing it with the possibility of "compelling vitality."31 Thanks to CD ROM technology and, before that, audio and video reproduction, nostalgia no longer has to rely on individual memory or desire: it can be fed forever by quick access to an infinitely recyclable past.
That original theory of nostalgia as a medical condition was developed in Europe "at the time of the rise of the great cities when greatly improved means of transportation made movements of the population much easier";32 in other words, you would be more likely to be away from home and thus yearn for it. The postmodern version of nostalgia may have been developed (in the West, at least) at the time when the rise of information technology made us question not only (as Jean-François Lyotard told us we must33) what would count as knowledge, but what would count as "the past" in relation to the present. We have not lacked for critics who lament the decline of historical memory in our postmodern times, often blaming the storage of memory in data banks for our cultural amnesia, our inability to engage in active remembrance. But, as Andreas Huyssen has convincingly argued, the contrary is just as likely to be true. In his words: "The more memory we store on data banks, the more the past is sucked into the orbit of the present, ready to be called up on the screen," making the past simultaneous with the present in a new way.34
Nostalgia, however, does not simply repeat or duplicate memory. Susan Stewart's provocative study, On Longing suggestively calls nostalgia a "social disease," defining it as "the repetition that mourns the inauthenticity of all repetition."35 The argument is that, denying or at least degrading the present as it is lived, nostalgia makes the idealized (and therefore always absent) past into the site of immediacy, presence, and authenticity. And here she approaches one of the major differences between nostalgia and irony. Unlike the knowingness of irony--a mark of the fall from innocence, if ever there was one--nostalgia is, in this way, "prelapsarian" and indeed utopian, says Stewart.36 Few have ever accused irony (even satiric irony) of successfully reinstating the authentic and the ideal.
Nostalgia has certainly not lacked for defenders, most of whom are psychoanalytically-oriented.37 This is not surprising if you think of the significant relationship psychoanalysis posits between identity and the personal psychic past unearthed by memory. This relationship becomes the model for the link between collective identity and memory for those who see a move to nostalgic transcendence and authenticity as a positive move. As one person in this camp has put it: "Longing is what makes art possible."38 By "longing," he means the emotional response to deprivation, loss, and mourning. Nostalgia has, in this way, been deemed the necessary inspirational "creative sorrow" for artists.39 This position draws on the original seventeenth-century meaning of the word; it sees nostalgia in our century as the positive response to the homelessness and exile of both private "nervous disorder and [public] persecution of actual enslavement and barbaric cruelty."40 When I think of the displaced homeless peoples of Rwanda or Bosnia, however, the more trivialized, commercialized connotations of the word "nostalgia" do stand in the way for me. My feelings when experiencing those lushly nostalgic Merchant/Ivory film versions of earlier novels must be different (in kind and not only in degree) from the experience of political refugees yearning for their homeland. But perhaps not.
In other words, despite very strong reservations (based in part on personality limitations), I do know that I should never underestimate the power of nostalgia, especially its visceral physicality and emotional impact. But that power comes in part from its structural doubling-up of two different times, an inadequate present and an idealized past.41 But this is where I must return to that other obsession of mine--irony--for irony too is doubled: two meanings, the "said" and the "unsaid," rub together to create irony--and it too packs considerable punch. People do not usually get upset about metaphor or synecdoche, but they certainly do get worked up about irony, as they did a few years ago in Toronto, where I live and work, when the aptly named Royal Ontario Museum put on an exhibition that used irony to deal with the relationship of Canadian missionaries and military to Empire in Africa. Sometimes, as we all know well, people get upset because they are the targets or victims of irony. Sometimes, though, anger erupts at the seeming inappropriateness of irony in certain situations. Witness the remarks of the Curriculum Advisor on Race Relations and Multiculturalism for the Toronto Board of Education at the time: "The implied criticism of colonial intrusion and the bigotry of the white missionaries and soldiers relies heavily on the use of irony, a subtle and frequently misunderstood technique. In dealing with issues as sensitive as cultural imperialism and racism, the use of irony is a highly inappropriate luxury"--especially, I might add, when condemnation is what is expected and desired.42
What irony and nostalgia share, therefore, is a perhaps unexpected twin evocation of both affect and agency--or, emotion and politics. I suspect that one of the reasons they do so is that they share something else--a secret hermeneutic affinity that might well account for some of the interpretive confusion with which I began, the confusion that saw postmodern artifacts, in particular, deemed simultaneously ironic and nostalgic. I want to argue that to call something ironic or nostalgic is, in fact, less a description of the ENTITY ITSELF than an attribution of a quality of RESPONSE. Irony is not something in an object that you either "get" or fail to "get": irony "happens" for you (or, better, you make it "happen") when two meanings, one said and the other unsaid, come together, usually with a certain critical edge. Likewise, nostalgia is not something you "perceive" in an object; it is what you "feel" when two different temporal moments, past and present, come together for you and, often, carry considerable emotional weight. In both cases, it is the element of response--of active participation, both intellectual and affective--that makes for the power.
Because people do not talk about this element of active attribution, the politics of both irony and nostalgia are often written off as quietistic at best. But irony is what Hayden White calls "transideological": it can be made to "happen" by (and to) anyone of any political persuasion. And nostalgia too is transideological, despite the fact that many would argue that, whether used by the right or the left, nostalgia is fundamentally conservative in its praxis, for it wants to keep things as they were--or, more accurately, as they are imagined to have been.43 But, the nostalgia for an idealized community in the past has been articulated by the ecology movement as often as by fascism,44 by what Jean Baudrillard calls "[m]elancholy for societies without power."45 From the seventeenth century on, nostalgia seems to have been connected to the desire to return specifically to the homeland. In nineteenth-century Europe, that homeland became articulated in terms of the nation state, and nostalgia began to take on its associations with nationalism--and chauvinism.46 Even its more innocent-seeming forms--such as the preparing and eating of familiar foods by immigrant groups--can be seen as a nostalgic enactment of ethnic group identity, a collective disregarding, at least temporarily, of generational and other divisions.47
One brave anthropologist has claimed that, unlike such searches for ethnicity, feminism has "no tendency toward nostalgia, no illusion of a golden age in the past."48 It has been suggested that this lack of nostalgic response is because the narratives of nostalgia--from the Bible onward--are male stories, Oedipal stories which are alienating to women (who usually remain at home like Penelope, while men wander the world and risk getting homesick).49 And, in support of such a theory, literary and film critics alike have located strains of a current antifeminist, nostalgic retreat to the past in the face of the changes in culture brought about by the rise of feminism.50 Humankind has not infrequently responded with a nostalgic defensive retreat into the past when feeling threatened: for example, despite its forward-looking ideology, the late nineteenth-century United States gave great new value to its Colonial past--as an "exclusive WASP [White Anglo-Saxon Protestant] heritage"--in part to combat the mass immigration that was accompanying industrialization and that felt so new and so un-"American."51
The politics of nostalgia are not only national or gender politics, of course. Think of the popularity in the 1980s of the David Lean film of Forster's A Passage to India or of The Jewel and the Crown, the television adaptation of Paul Scott's The Raj Quartet. The intended anti-nostalgic exposé of the corruption and exploitation of empire in India may have been less the cause of their success than either a nostalgic liberal-utopian hope that two races might have been able to live as equals--despite history--or a nostalgic memory of the time when Britain was not a minor world power but, rather, ruler of an empire upon which the sun never set.52 This is what Renato Rosaldo calls "imperial nostalgia," the kind that makes racial domination appear innocent through elegance of manners.53 But, this nostalgia puts us, as viewers, into the same position as the very agents of empire, for they too have documented at length their paradoxical nostalgia for the cultures they had colonized--in other words, the ones they had intentionally and forcefully altered. This is the nostalgia of those who believe in "progress" and innovation, a nostalgia (again, paradoxically) for more simple, stable worlds--such as those of the putatively static societies they destroyed.
Post-colonial critics have pointed to nostalgic moments in the history of the colonized, too, however. To some, the "négritude" move in African cultural theory, with its focus on the pre-capitalist, pre-imperial past, was the sign of a nostalgic search for a lost coherence.54 Many oppressed people--Holocaust survivors and North American First Nations peoples among them--have had a strong and understandable nostalgia for what is perceived as their once unified identity. But most often, the post-colonial focus of attention has been on the nostalgia of the (usually) European colonizers, on their sense of loss and mourning for the cultural unity and centrality they once had.55 But, as Fredric Jameson has said, "a history lesson is the best cure for nostalgic pathos."56
Jameson's own attack on the postmodern is in itself worth examining in this context because it is an attack on both its regressive nostalgia and its trivializing irony. One of Jameson's main targets is what he calls the postmodern "nostalgia film"--a term that he has used to refer to anything from George Lukas's American Graffiti to Laurence Kasdan's Body Heat. These are what he calls "fashion-plate, historicist films" that reveal "the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past."57 To him, these are the inauthentic, nostalgic "celebrations of the imaginary style of a real past" which he sees as "something of a substitute for that older system of historical representation, indeed as a virtual symptom-formation, a formal compensation for the enfeeblement of historicity in our own time."58 This medicalized psychoanalytic language--"symptom-formation", "compensation"--is used quite deliberately by Jameson because he feels that the postmodern taste for such films corresponds to certain needs in what he calls "our present economic-psychic constitution."59
But film theorist Anne Friedberg has pointed out that what Jameson is really protesting here is the distanced relation of every film from its historical referent. In other words, it is the medium and not postmodernism that gives the illusion of a "perpetual present interminably recycled."60 Or, as Derek Jarman put it when rewriting Marlowe in his postmodern film version of Edward II, "[f]ilmed history is always a misinterpretation. The past is the past, as you try to make material out of it, things slip even further away."61 But, even if Jameson is wrong in where he puts the blame for the nostalgia, what interests me is that, when he finds something nostalgic--be it in the theorizing of the Frankfurt School or the novels of J.G. Ballard--nostalgia is meant to be taken negatively as "regressive."62 Yet his own rhetoric and position can themselves at times sound strangely nostalgic: in article after article in the 1980s, he repeatedly yearned for what he called "genuine historicity" in the face of a postmodernism which, in his words, was "an elaborated symptom of the waning of our historicity, of our lived possibility of experiencing history in some active way."63 And yet, it is precisely nostalgia for this kind of "lost authenticity" that has proved time and time again to be paralyzing in terms of historical thinking.64 Indeed Jameson's position has been called both regressive and defeatist.65 Is Jameson's implicit mythologizing and idealizing of a more stable, pre-late-capitalist (that is, modernist) world not in itself perhaps part of an aesthetics (or even politics) of nostalgia? If so, it is one he shares with his Marxist predecessor, Georg Lukács, for whom it was not modernism but realism that constituted that implied "moment of plenitude"66 in the past around which literary historical nostalgia revolved.
Michael Bérubé has, in fact, suggested that the Left, in America at least, has at times recently seemed paralyzed "by dreams of days when things were better." As he puts it: "it was only the repeated interventions of women, ethnic minorities and variously queer theorists that finally shattered the pernicious sense of nostalgia to which so many men on the antipostmodern left fell victim."67 Nostalgia can certainly be, in Tim Reiss's strong terms, "functionally crippling."68 Jameson's preference for science fiction over these period-recreation "nostalgia" films is a bit deceptive, for it simply points to his orientation toward the very common futuristic dimension of an equally nostalgic utopian drive.69 If the present is considered irredeemable, you can look either back or forward. The nostalgic and utopian impulses share a common rejection of the here and now.
It is not that the here and now, the present, does not have its problems, however. All "presents" have always had their problems, but there is little doubt that there has been, in the last few decades, a commercialization of nostalgia, especially in the mass media, a commercialization that many have seen as a real evasion of contemporary issues and problems.70 Ralph Lauren's "Safari" fashion and perfume line a few years ago allowed us to experience the nostalgic style of an era without bearing any of its historical costs; it also offered us, as one writer put it, "a chance to relive the days of the tragically doomed upper class engaging in their white mischief on the plains of the Serengeti"71--"living without boundaries", as the ads said. This is a combination of commercial nostalgia--that teaches us to miss things we have never lost--and "armchair nostalgia"--that exists without any lived experience of the yearned-for time.72
Is this part of the "postmodern"? Since it is part of late-capitalist culture, Jameson would say it is. But, to generalize the term "postmodern" into a synonym for the contemporary is to abandon its historical and cultural specificity--an abandonment Jameson would never condone for modernism, for example. To illustrate what I mean about the need to make distinctions, think of the difference between contemporary postmodern architecture and contemporary revivalist (nostalgic) architecture; the postmodern architecture does indeed recall the past, but always with the kind of ironic double vision that acknowledges the final impossibility of indulging in nostalgia, even as it consciously evokes nostalgia's affective power. In the postmodern, in other words, (and here is the source of the tension) nostalgia itself gets both called up, exploited, and ironized.73 This is a complicated (and postmodernly paradoxical) move that is both an ironizing of nostalgia itself, of the very urge to look backward for authenticity, and, at the same moment, a sometimes shameless invoking of the visceral power that attends the fulfilment of that urge.74
Perhaps the history of the wider cultural entity called postmodernity would help explain this paradox. If, as it has been argued often, nostalgia is a by-product of cultural modernity (with its alienation, its much lamented loss of tradition and community),75 then postmodernity's complex relationship with modernity--a relationship of both rupture and continuity--might help us understand the necessary addition of irony to this nostalgic inheritance. It has become a commonplace to compare the end of the nineteenth century to the end of our own, to acknowledge their common doubts about progress, their shared worries over political instability and social inequality, their comparable fears about disruptive change.76 But if nostalgia was an obvious consequence of the last fin-de-siècle panic--"manifest in idealizations of rural life, in vernacular-revival architecture, in arts-and-crafts movements, and in a surge of preservation activity"77--then some, not all (not the commercial variety, usually), but some nostalgia we are seeing today (what I want to call postmodern) is of a different order, an ironized order. If the nineteenth century turned nostalgically to the historical novels of Walter Scott and familiar Gothic Revival architecture, the twentieth has combined nostalgia with irony to produce the historiographic metafictions of Salman Rushdie and historically suggestive, parodic architectural ideas of Charles Moore's once splendid Piazza d'Italia in New Orleans. Gone is the sense of belatedness of the present vis-à-vis the past; the act of ironizing (while still implicitly invoking) nostalgia undermines modernist assertions of originality, authenticity, and the burden of the past, even as it acknowledges their continuing (but not paralyzing) validity as aesthetic concerns.
Our contemporary culture is indeed nostalgic; some parts of it--postmodern parts--are aware of the risks and lures of nostalgia, and seek to expose those through irony. Given irony's conjunction of the said and the unsaid--in other words, its inability to free itself from the discourse it contests--there is no way for these cultural modes to escape a certain complicity, to separate themselves artificially from the culture of which they are a part. If our culture really is obsessed with remembering--and forgetting--as is suggested by the astounding growth of what Huyssen calls our "memorial culture" with its "relentless museummania,"78 then perhaps irony is one (though only one) of the means by which to create the necessary distance and perspective on that anti-amnesiac drive. Admittedly, there is little irony in most memorials, and next to none in most truly nostalgic re-constructions of the past--from Disney World's Main Street, USA to those elaborate dramatized re-enactments of everything from the American Civil War to medieval jousts restaged in contemporary England. But there is much ironized nostalgia too--in Angela Carter's meditation on gender and the dawn of the twentieth century in Nights at the Circus or in the wonderful generic paradox of a new work commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera of New York: William Hofman and John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles. It is ironically and paradoxically called a "grand opera buffa"--for "grand" is the only kind of "intimate" opera buffa you can put on at that particular opera house, with its more than 3000 seats and its penchant for spectacle and indeed for "grand opera." From a postmodern point of view, the knowingness of this kind of irony may be not so much a defense against the power of nostalgia as the way in which nostalgia is made palatable today: invoked but, at the same time, undercut, put into perspective, seen for exactly what it is--a comment on the present as much as on the past.
Seen from that angle, though, not only have irony and nostalgia gone
hand in hand in the postmodern, but perhaps they have done so for a
long time (as those who work in earlier periods may know only too
well): Don Quijote gave us those wonderful ironies of incongruity and
inappropriateness precisely through his nostalgia for a chivalric past.
In like vein, the all too ready attribution of irony to someone like
Madonna in her Marilyn (and maybe even in her Evita) phase cannot
really be separated from nostalgia. This may in part be because irony
and nostalgia are not qualities of objects; they are responses
of subjects--active, emotionally- and intellectually-engaged
subjects. The ironizing of nostalgia, in the very act of its invoking,
may be one way the postmodern has of taking responsibility for such
responses by creating a small part of the distance necessary for
reflective thought about the present as well as the past.
1. Irony's Edge: The Theory and Politics of Irony (London and New York: Routledge, 1995).
2. Toby Young and Tom Vanderbilt, "The End of Irony?" The Modern Review 1.14 (April-May 1994): 6-7.
3. See Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (London and New York: Routledge, 1987); The Politics of Postmodernism (London and New York: Routledge, 1988); The Canadian Postmodern (Toronto: Oxford UP, 1998).
4. The list would be endless, but let me simply note the most cited opponent of the postmodern, Fredric Jameson, whose 1984 essay on "Postmodernism, Or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism" in the New Left Review 146 (1984): 53-92 in many ways provoked my own work in the field.
5. See Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (London: Academy, 1977) and Post-Modern Classicism: The New Synthesis (London: Academy, 1980).
6. See Manfredo Tafuri, Theories and History of Architecture (London: Granada, 1980), 52-9.
7. Andreas Huyssen, "Mapping the Postmodern," reprinted in Joseph Natoli and Linda Hutcheon, eds., A Postmodern Reader (Albany: SUNY P, 1993), 112.
8. Of course in the 1960s Susan Sontag characterized camp in precisely these terms in her "Notes on 'Camp'" in Against Interpretation and other Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966), 275-92.
9. See Sherry Lynne Rosenthal, "Four Essays on the Nostalgic Appeal of Popular Fiction, Film, and Television: Hard Times, The Birth of a Nation, The Grapes of Wrath, All in the Family." Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, San Diego, 1983.
10. See Peter Rist, "Nostalgia: Stars and Genres in American Pop Culture," Canadian Review of American Studies 20.1 (1989): 111-17.
11. David Lowenthal, The Past Is a Foreign Country (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985), 6.
12. See Christopher Lasch, "The Politics of Nostalgia," Harper's Magazine (November 1984), 68; Lowenthal 29; Sandra Ernst Moriarty and Anthony F. McGann, "Nostalgia and Consumer Sentiment," Journalism Quarterly 60 (1983): 85 on the impact of nostalgic professional design magazine advertisements on the media.
13. George Steiner, Nostalgia for the Absolute, Massey Lectures, 14th series (Toronto: CBC, 1974), 50.
14. Robert Rubens, "The Backward Glance--A Contemporary Taste for Nostalgia," Contemporary Review (September 1981): 149.
15. Johannes Hofer, Dissertatio medica de nostalgia, oder Heimwehe (Basel, 1688), translated in The Bulletin of the Institute of the History of Medicine 7 (1934): 379-91.
16. This is in spite of early medical attempts to universalize it into something felt by all beings--of all ages and temperaments--anywhere on the face of the earth. E.g. Philippe Pinel's nostalgia entry in the Encyclopédie Méthodique: Médecine, 10 (Paris: Agasse, 1821). See also B. Ruml, "Theory of Nostalgic and Egoic Sentiments," Psychological Bulletin 30 (1933): 656-7.
17. See Jean Starobinski, "The Idea of Nostalgia," Diogenes 54 (1966): 81-103. The citations are from pages 90 and 87 respectively.
18. The medical meaning did see a revival, evidently, during the American Civil War. See J. Theodore Calhoun, "Nostalgia as a Disease of Field Service," Medical and Surgical Reporter 11 (27 February 1864); DeWitt C. Peters, "Remarks on the Evils of Youthful Enlistments and Nostalgia," American Medical Times (14 February 1863).
19. See Antonio Prete, "L'assedio della lontananza," in Antonio Prete, ed., Nostalgia: storia di un sentimento (Milan: Raffaello Cortina, 1992), 17.
20. See the discussion of, among others, Karl Jaspers' Heimweh und Verbrechen (1909) in Starobinski 99-101.
21. For more on the medical and psychological angle on nostalgia, see Willis H. McCann, "Nostalgia--A Review of the Literature," Psychological Bulletin 38 (1941): 165-82 and "Nostalgia: A Descriptive and Comparative Study," Journal of Genetic Psychology 62 (1943): 97-104; George Rosen, "Nostalgia: A 'Forgotten' Psychological Disorder," Clio Medica 10.1 (1975): 28-51.
22. Immanuel Kant, Anthropologie in pragmatischer Hinsicht (1798). More recently, it has been argued that the appeal of the comic strip in French culture today is nostalgia for childhood. See Irène Pennacchioni, La Nostalgie en images: une sociologie du récit dessiné (Paris: Librairie des Méridiens, 1982).
23. See Vladimir Jankélévitch's meditation on this in L'Irreversible et la nostalgie (Paris: Flammarion, 1974).
24. James Phillips, "Distance, Absence, and Nostalgia," in Don Ihde and Hugh J. Silverman, eds., Descriptions (Albany: SUNY P, 1985), 65.
25. M.M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: U of Texas P, 1881), 147. Thanks to Russell Kilbourn for calling this to my attention.
26. See Phillips 65.
27. Lowenthal 62; Douglas T. Miller and Marion Nowak, The Fifties: The Way We Really Were (New York: Doubleday, 1977).
28. But is this perhaps how nostalgia only "masquerades as memory," as one theorist puts it? See E.B. Daniels, "Nostalgia: Experiencing the Elusive," in Ihde and Silverman 84.
29. Lee Quinby, Anti-Apocalypse: Exercises in Genealogical Criticism (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1994), xvi.
30. Malcolm Chase and Christopher Shaw, "The Dimensions of Nostalgia," in Christopher Shaw and Malcolm Cross, eds., The Imagined Past: History and Nostalgia (Manchester and NY: Manchester UP, 1989), 4. Chase and Shaw also point out that the photograph is the "paradigm case of the moment of nostalgia" (9).
31. Lowenthal 30.
32. Starobinski 101-2.
33. See Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984).
34. Andreas Huyssen, Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia (New York and London: Routledge, 1995), 253.
35. Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narrative of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1984), 23.
36. Stewart 23.
37. See, for instance, Roderick Peters, "Reflections on the Origin and Aim of Nostalgia," Journal of Analytic Psychology 30 (1985): 135-48; or Nandor Fodor, "Varieties of Nostalgia," Psychoanalytic Review 37 (1950): 25-38.
38. Laurence Lerner, The Uses of Nostalgia: Studies in Pastoral Poetry (London: Chatto & Windus, 1972), 52.
39. Michael M. Mason, "The Cultivation of the Senses for Creative Nostalgia in the Essays of W.H. Hudson," Ariel 20.1 (1989): 23. It has also been called our "moral conscience" for it is said to let us know what values we hold most dear and help us fight "the sickness of despair." See Ralph Harper, Nostalgia: An Existential Exploration of Longing and Fulfilment in the Modern Age (Cleveland: P of Western Reserve U, 1966), 28.
40. Harper 21.
41. All nostalgia, then, would be what Fred Davis calls "interpreted nostalgia" wherein an analysis of an experience, however brief or mistaken, comes to be fused with that primary experience and thus alters it. See Yearning for Yesterday: A Sociology of Nostalgia (New York: Free P, 1979), 25.
42. The Curriculum Advisor on Race Relations and Multiculturalism for the Toronto Board of Education, cited in "Analyzing Racism at ROM" in The Varsity (June 1990), 4.
43. See Susan Bennett, Performing Nostalgia: Shifting Shakespeare and the Contemporary Past (London and New York: Routledge, 1996) 5; 161, n.4.
44. See Anthony Arblaster, Viva la libertà: Politics in Opera (London: Verso, 1992), 180.
45. Jean Baudrillard, "The Precession of Simulacra," in Natoli and Hutcheon 361. He goes on to call nostalgia "the phastasmal parodic rehabilitation of all lost referentials" (372).
46. See Jankélévitch; Kathleen Parthé, "Village Prose: Chauvinism, Nationalism, or Nostalgia?" in Sheelagh Duffin Graham, ed., New Directions in Soviet Literature (London: Macmillan, 1992), 106-21.
47. See Richard Raspa, "Exotic Foods among Italian-Americans in Mormon Utah: Food as Nostalgic Enactment of Identity," in Linda Keller Brown and Kay Mussell, eds., Ethnic and Regional Foodways in the United States: The Performance of Group Identity (Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1984), 185-94.
48. Michael M.J. Fischer, "Autobiographical Voices (1, 2, 3) and Mosaic Memory," in Kathleen Ashley, Leigh Gilmore, and Gerald Peters, eds., Autobiography and Postmodernism (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1994), 92.
49. Teresa Maria Brown, "Rewriting the Nostalgic Story: Woman, Desire, Narrative," Ph.D. dissertation, University of Florida, 1989.
50. See Janice Doane and Devon Hodges, Nostalgia and Sexual Difference: The Resistance to Contemporary Feminism (London and New York: Methuen, 1987), xiii. See also Barbara Creed, "From Here to Modernity: Feminism and Postmodernism," Screen 28.2 (1987): 47-67 on film nostalgia and issues of gender which Fredric Jameson does NOT deal with. For a discussion of the condemnation of utopian "future nostalgia" by feminist writers, see Kathe Davis Finney, "The Days of Future Past or Utopians Lessing and LeGuin Fight Future Nostalgia," in Donald M. Hassler, ed., Patterns of the Fantastic (Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House, 1983), 31-40. For a general critique of various kinds of utopian thinking, including nostalgic ones, see Vincent P. Pecora, Households of the Soul (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996).
51. Lowenthal 121.
52. On Shakespeare's role in this kind of nostalgia, see Bennett 145: "To reproduce a classic text of the European imperial archive is always to risk its willing and wistfully nostalgic assent to (re)claim its own authority. Those texts are simply so heavily overcoded, value laden, that the production and reception of the 'new' text necessarily becomes bound to the tradition that encompasses and promotes the old 'authentic' version. This remains the argument against the revival/rewriting of The Tempest or any other classical text: that containment is an inevitable effect."
53. Renato Rosando, Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis (Boston: Beacon P, 1989), 68. Thanks to Monika Kaup for calling this to my attention.
54. Simon Simonse, "African Literature between Nostalgia and Utopia: African Novels since 1953 in the Light of the Modes-of-Production Approach," Research in African Literatures 13.4 (1982): 451-87.
55. See Ien Ang, "Hegemony-in-Trouble: Nostalgia and the Ideology of the Impossible in European Cinema," in Duncan Petrie, ed., Screening Europe: Image and Identity in Contemporary European Cinema (London: British Film Institute, 1992): 21-31.
56. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1991), 156.
57. Jameson, Postmodernism xvii and 19, respectively.
58. Fredric Jameson, Signatures of the Visible (New York and London: Routledge, 1990), 85 and 130 respectively.
59. Fredric Jameson, "Nostalgia for the Present," The South Atlantic Quarterly 88.2 (1989): 527.
60. Anne Friedberg, "Les Flaneurs du Mal(l): Cinema and the Postmodern Condition," PMLA 106.3 (1991): 419-31.
61. Derek Jarman, Queer Edward II (London: British Film Institute, 1991), 86.
62. See, respectively, Fredric Jameson, The Ideologies of Theory: Essays 1971-1986. Volume I: Situations of Theory (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988), 110 and Postmodernism 156.
63. Jameson, Postmodernism 19 and 21, respectively.
64. John Frow, "Tourism and the Semiotics of Nostalgia," October 57 (1991): 135.
65. Simon During, "Postmodernism or Post-colonialism Today," Textual Practice 1.1 (1987): 32-47.
66. See Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1971), 38. The phrase is used to describe Adorno's critique of theories of history organized around the covert hypothesis of such a "moment of plenitude" in the past or future.
67. Michael Bérubé, "Just the Fax, Ma'am, Or, Postmodernism's Journey to Decenter," Village Voice (October 1991), 14.
68. Timothy J. Reiss, "Critical Environments: Cultural Wilderness or Cultural History?" Canadian Review of Comparative Literature 10.2 (June 1983): 193.
69. But it does so at a time when, as Andreas Huyssen has argued, Western culture's utopian imagination "is shifting from its futuristic pole toward the pole of remembrance." See Huyssen, Twilight Memories 88.
70. See Allison Graham, "History, Nostalgia, and the Criminality of Popular Culture," Georgia Review 38.2 (1984): 348-64. See also Elizabeth Wilson, Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity (London: Virago, 1985, on nostalgia in fashion as a "strangely unmotived appropriation of the past" (172).
71. Vanderbilt 7.
72. These are the terms of Arjun Appadurai, in his Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996), 77-8.
73. This is one step beyond what has been called the ironic nostalgia of, say, post-Soviet artists who, according to Svetlana Boym, "reconfigure and preserve various kinds of imagined community and offer interesting cultural hybrids--of Soviet kitsch and memories of totalitarian childhood." See Svetlana Boym, "From the Russian Soul to Post-Communist Nostalgia," Representations 49 (Winter 1995): 151.
74. There may be analogies here with what Bennett calls "queer nostalgia" wherein "identity-forming discourses of the past are both confirmed and fractured at the moment of performance" (159).
75. See Chase and Shaw 7.
76. See Lowenthal 394-6.
77. Lowenthal 396.
78. Huyssen, Twilight Memories 5; see Lasch for contrasting view: "If Americans really cared about the past, they would try to understand how it still shapes their ideas and actions. Instead they lock it up in museums or reduce it to another object of commercialized consumption" (69).
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